From Iceland — Who's Got The Power?

Who’s Got The Power?

Published December 14, 2009

Who’s Got The Power?

While gender equality is progressing within Nordic politics, one problem that has not been solved is the lack of women in top positions within business and industry.
    In order to identify the greatest challenges relating to gender equality within politics and business, the Nordic Gender Institute carried out a one year research project in the Nordic countries entitled Gender and Power. The results were recently presented at a conference in Reykjavík and the Grapevine was there to peruse the findings.

Equality success!
The study is based on the assumption that a balanced representation of gender runs on the 40%–60% scale. “One of the most important findings of the research is that it is almost always women that are close to 40% on the scale. Men, meanwhile, seem to more often dominate at 60% representation. So we have to discuss if this really is gender balance,” says Kirsti Niskanen, head of research at the Nordic Gender Institute, in an interview after the conference.
    Either way, the 40–60% target has been reached in the parliaments of Finland, Iceland and Sweden. In Denmark and Norway, women account for just under 40%. “Parliamentary politics can be described as an equality success for all the Nordic countries,” says Niskanen.
    In Iceland there has been a significant increase in Alþingi’s representation of women since the mid-1990s —from 25% to 43%. “Iceland has made progress in this area. The country has almost always lagged behind, but is now catching up,” Niskanen explains.
    The Nordic governments are in general relatively gender-balanced. After the 2009 elections, there is a 50–50% representation in the Icelandic government. Finland alone has a government dominated by women with 60% representation. Like Iceland, it’s 50–50 in Norway and in Sweden; in Denmark women account for just over 40% in government.

It ain’t all good
The situation isn’t as good in the municipal field. “It is much more unequal on the municipal level,” says Niskanen. Only Sweden, with 42% women, can be said to have achieved gender balance at local level. On average, women amount to 36% of Icelandic municipal governments, while only one in four Danish local politicians is a woman.
    Kirsti Niskanen explains that greater gender balance is found in areas that are highly visible. Equality is not monitored so closely at local authority level, therefore the representation of women is worse here. “One of our findings is that in areas where there is a constant discussion on gender equality issues, we have 40–60% women, as it is in parliamentary politics. But areas where there is no discussion or debate about gender equality are often strongly male dominated.”

It’s a man’s world
The positive trends in politics are not reflected in the fields of business and industry—they remain extremely male dominated in all the Nordic countries. The proportion of women on the boards of private companies ranges from 7 to 36%, with Iceland at 7% and Norway topping the range at 36%. Public corporations are more gender-balanced, since they are generally directly influenced by equality laws and regulations.
    “It looks rather dreary regarding gender equality within the business sector in Iceland” said Guðbjörg Linda Rafnsdóttir, sociology professor at the University of Iceland, at the conference. “We need legislation to increase the amount of women in top positions.”
    The Icelandic gender equality legislation from 1985 states there should be a proportion of 40–60% from each gender in state-owned committees, councils and boards. According to Rafnsdóttir there is still a gender bias within private companies and organisations that are not subject to the legislation.
    “If companies can’t present equal boards of directors after the shareholders’ meetings next spring, we will have to introduce a quota legislation resembling the one in Norway,” Minister of Social Affairs Árni Páll Árnason said at the opening of the conference.
    Iceland could therefore become the second Nordic country to introduce gender quotas in companies’ board of directors. The Norwegian parliament instated such a law in 2003. It requires boards to be at least 40% female. This has lead to the proportion of women on the boards of private companies in Norway rising from 9% in 2004 to 36% in 2009.

What to do?
So why is there greater equality in politics than business? Pressure from the women’s movement and the fact that gender equality issues have always been lively debated in politics has been crucial, according to Niskanen. Political parties also play a key role in the development of political representation, since they nominate the candidates the voters can vote to office. Lastly, legislation that has prescribed gender balanced representation in state-owned sectors has also had effect.
    “There must be a greater demand for women leaders in the business sector to improve gender equality. In politics there is a demand, we want female politicians on high levels. We are just not there in the world of business yet,” says Niskanen.
    Some say quotas are the solution to equality problems, some say they are not. Within the realm of public discourse, quotas are often controversial and create a very lively debate. “Our results indicate that quotas are not the universal solution, but we do see that quotas are an effective door opener. Quotas must, like any other equality measure, be understood, analyzed and discussed in a social, political and cultural context. Our wish is simply that the findings of this project will be a platform for discussion and an inspiration for policy makers.”  

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